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Abramovich is suing the EU. He’s not the only one

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Russia’s oligarchs and industry are fighting back against Europe’s sanctions.

At least 20 of Russia’s most powerful magnates are filing cases against the European Union to unfreeze their assets and unblock their visas.

Among them is Roman Abramovich, former owner of Chelsea football club, who was sanctioned in March for allegedly benefiting from his close ties to President Vladimir Putin. 

A list of filings of the EU’s second highest tribunal, the General Court, shows a host of names that overlap with the list of sanctioned individuals that the Council of the EU has drawn up. There are also several anonymized court cases that could involve more oligarchs.

Among the high-profile names are Fridman, Aven and Usmanov, who lodged their complaint with the court between the end of April and end of May.

The court’s list currently only mentions last names, but the same names appear on the Council of the EU’s list of sanctioned individuals.

The EU sanctioned Mikhail Fridman, founder of Russian investment company Alfa Group. It also froze the assets and imposed travel bans on Fridman’s former business partner Petr Aven, who the EU views as “one of Vladimir Putin’s closest oligarchs.”

Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov was also hit by sanctions.

The companies and representatives of Fridman and Aven could not be reached for comment. A spokesperson for Usmanov declined to comment “on the legal procedures related to sanctions.” POLITICO also did not receive replies to attempts to contact Abramovich.

A host of Russian organizations are also complaining about action taken against them by the bloc. Broadcaster RT filed a complaint against its suspension, which the General Court upheld, but another hearing in the case is scheduled for June 10.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund filed a complaint after the EU banned investment into the fund in March. Investment institution VEB.RF, whose chairman is appointed by Vladimir Putin, has also launched legal action. The companies did not respond to requests for comment.

While the court could not comment on individual cases, spokesperson Jacques Zammit said that it would be a long way before judgments will be handed down. A case could “take months, definitely, even about a year for a case from start to finish,” he said. More cases are expected to be filed over the next few weeks and months. The EU has sanctioned more than 1,000 people so far.

Mikhail Friedman is among the Russian oligarchs who filed complaints with the EU’s General Court | Pavel Golovkin/AFP via Getty Images

The EU has a mixed record when successfully defending against such complaints. From 2008 to 2015, for instance, the EU lost about two-thirds of the legal challenges on sanctions it had imposed, according to a study requested by the European Parliament.

But even if the oligarchs win the cases, they may not get their money back. Andreas Geiger of lobbying firm Alber & Geiger, which has conducted work on sanctions, said that suing the Council was “useless” even if the court ruled in the complainants’ favor.

That’s because the Council issues new sanctions listings each year, which are — legally speaking — from the list before it. “These people will stay on the sanctions list — even if they win all their court cases, one decision after the other, year after year — for as long as the council wants, because they are always sending out a new decision,” he said, even if the court decides the decision was illegal.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian ally, has been filing complaints for years. His assets were frozen in 2014 for embezzling state funds right before he deposed by mass protests. In June last year, the court sided with him, but the EU announced it would keep the sanctions in place. Two new cases under the name of Yanukovych were registered last month.

The only way to get off the sanctions list, Geiger said, was to engage in lengthy political lobbying.

But the EU might have an answer for that too. The bloc’s latest sanctions package, which entered into force on Friday, makes it illegal for European firms to do lobbying activities for Russians or the Russian government.

Sarah Anne Aarup contributed reporting.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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